June 6th, 2024



Richard Bullick

A wonderful free from Aimee Mackin in injury-time gave the Orchard outfit their sixth consecutive victory this season as Armagh made history by booking their place in the National League final for the first time ever.

Ace markswoman Mackin’s curling long-range effort from the more difficult side for a left-footed kicker, into the wind, secured an Armagh win which had looked like slipping away on a landmark afternoon for Lauren McConville.

On her younger brother Cian’s birthday and the 26th anniversary of her dad Jim captaining Crossmaglen to their first All Ireland Club title, the formidable McConville lined out for her 100th Armagh match without ever having been injured or dropped.

McConville made her Orchard debut on the same day just over a decade ago as Aoife McCoy, already a member of the Orchard centurion club, and the Dromintee dynamo was absolutely superb for the visitors in Ballina with her panic-inducing runs.

McCoy set up the first Armagh goal for Mackin and then raised a green flag herself as Greg McGonigle’s side established a nine-point interval lead after playing with the breeze behind them in the opening period.

Avoiding defeat in Ballina was enough for Armagh to reach Croke Park but it didn’t look like they would need the draw as a fallback when so well placed at the break with the scoreboard showing 2-5 to 0-2.

Armagh made a very belated return to the field for the second half, perhaps antagonising the referee as well as their hosts, and it felt like they were still in the changing rooms metaphorically when play did finally resume.

Against National League title holders Kerry last time out, Armagh had fallen behind briefly after relinquishing a five-point half-time lead on that occasion before turning the tide and pulling away to win by the comfortable margin of seven points.

Here too the orangewomen were left having to dig deep as Mayo managed to get on the front foot and were back on level terms by the 53rd minute after a precise reversal of the first half scoreline.

With Orchard icon Caroline O’Hanlon less than halfway through her sinbin period and the momentum emphatically with Mayo, it felt ominous for an Armagh team just back in Division One after a six-season absence.

Mayo nudged Armagh ahead only for midfielder Aoife Geraghty to fist an equalising score at the other end before O’Hanlon returned and it was ultimately left to Mackin to settle what was a fairly feisty contest by converting the difficult free won by that woman McCoy.

It still took young Clann Eireann defender Roisin Mulligan, Armagh’s find of the season, to win a ball brilliantly followed by O’Hanlon trotting around with it running the clock down before the final whistle confirmed the Orchard crew will finish top of the table.

Had Armagh lost they would have had a second chance to secure the point they needed when All Ireland champions Dublin come to the Athletic Grounds this Saturday (2.45pm, TG4), though the visitors could have pipped them to a place in the final with a win.

Instead, Armagh are already assured of their ticket to Croke Park but Dublin are still chasing Kerry for the other spot in the showpiece after both teams won at the weekend, against relegation-threatened Cork and Meath respectively.

Dublin beat Cork 2-11 to 0-7 so go into the last round of regular league games one point behind Kerry, who overcame former Armagh manager Shane McCormack’s Meath 1-15 to 0-5 and will know what they need by the time they host struggling Galway this Sunday.

It remains to be seen whether McGonigle will want Armagh to put their best foot forward in an attempt to maintain momentum or rest players ahead of the historic NFL final on April 7 and perhaps seek to keep powder dry.

The new Armagh manager has fielded a fairly settled side so far this season and named an unchanged team for Sunday’s Mayo match, though on the day there were two changes from the published line-up.

Ballyhegan’s Eve Lavery came in for Harps prospect Emily Druse, ending her run of 11 consecutive starts, while reserve goalkeeper Brianna Mathers of Shane O’Neills was between the posts in place of regular Anna Carr from neighbouring club Carrickcruppen.

Although the visitors struggled on their own kickouts in the second half, Mathers took the opportunity to remind everyone that Armagh are fortunate to have two good keepers, making one fantastic save and demonstrating confidence under the high ball.

Former skipper Kelly Mallon kicked two frees before being substituted quite early again, replaced by Clonmore’s Sarah Quigley on 40 minutes, while Druse took over from Lavery at the same juncture with both Maeve Ferguson and Caitriona O’Hagan introduced later.

Armagh may not be particularly content with their second half display but still came out on the right side of the result while Liam McHale’s Mayo will lament chances not taken on a day they chalked up 11 wides to eight by the team in orange.

Ironically, eventual Orchard hero Mackin’s radar had been off at times in the opening period, missing a straightforward free and a good goal chance but, while she improved, Mayo were guilty of kicking a very costly six wides in a seven-minute spell in the last quarter.

This was a much more cagey affair than the game against Kerry when all 14 of Armagh’s points came from play whereas five of the nine white flags raised here were from frees, three of those by Mackin within her haul of 1-5.

Triple All Star O’Hanlon did well to be in Ballina for the 1pm throw-in, which she won, after playing in the 71-55 defeat for Leeds Rhinos away to champions Loughborough Lightning in netball’s British SuperLeague the evening before.

She had doubled up in both sports the weekends Armagh had ended the unbeaten records of Meath and Kerry this season so McGonigle had no qualms about starting the 39-year-old legend in midfield as usual.

Corinna Doyle kicked a very early Armagh wide, with Mayo almost immediately doing likewise at the other end, and there were no scores registered until Mallon converted a seventh minute free won by Doyle.

An arm-pull by O’Hanlon allowed Maria Cannon to quickly cancel that out with a free of her own and Mackin nudged Armagh ahead again with a set-piece strike after mis-hitting her original shot.

She then fluffed a free after O’Hanlon had caused havoc on the opposition kickout and Armagh were grateful to McConville for a brave and brilliant intervention which denied Mayo a good goal chance and left her requiring treatment.

Clann Eireann captain Niamh Henderson, who had played her first Armagh match for nine years two weeks earlier against Kerry, looks incredibly comfortable on her return to county football and having her back undoubtedly boosts the Orchard cause.

Armagh worked hard in defending in numbers but also looked more incisive on the counter-attack than their hosts with corner backs Mulligan and Grace Ferguson regularly getting involved in the Orchard raids.

Mathers made that superb save to deny Kathryn Sullivan midway through the first half and Mayo also kicked a wide before McCoy cut infield after a brilliant break down the right flank and set up Mackin who clinically tucked away a 19th minute Armagh goal.

Sinead Cafferky and Lavery traded wides before Mackin kicked another free, though she then hit Armagh’s fourth wide after a great turnover won by Henderson, who was also involved in the lead-up to Doyle being off target in the 28th minute.

But Armagh had a second goal before the half hour mark, Dearbhla Coleman picking up when Mayo spilled possession in attack, Ferguson breaking out and playing a long ball to Aimee Mackin and Henderson sending McCoy through for a great goal.

Sinead Walsh soon doubled Mayo’s score but Mackin kicked another free in injury-time and Doyle won a turnover which created the platform for Armagh to probe until O’Hanlon fed fellow midfielder Niamh Coleman to her left and she chipped over the bar.

Mayo started the second half with a wide by sub Saoirse Delaney but, by the time she did register a score in the 37th minute, just after a narrow wide by McConville at the other end, Cannon had kicked a free and Lisa Cafferky pointed from play.

McConville had plucked out another intercept thanks to a brilliant read but the orangewomen were in a game now and despite a lovely point from McCoy and the introduction of fresh legs in the form of Quigley and Druse, the force remained with Mayo.

Henderson kicked a wide before Walsh struck for a goal which Orchard captain Clodagh McCambridge, the country’s top full back, may feel she could have done better in trying to prevent, but a lovely point by Mackin left Armagh five ahead entering the last quarter.

Visiting sub Druse shot at the goalkeeper before Walsh pointed for the hosts and O’Hanlon’s sinbinning would have given Mayo a boost, though they spurned opportunities to capitalise straight away by kicking three wides in the next two minutes.

However, Delaney then produced a lovely left-footed finish low to the Orchard net and Cannon levelled the scores with a point from long range after Mayo had won another Armagh kickout.

Having lost a nine-point lead, Armagh were really under siege and living dangerously but were let off the hook by two more wides from Mayo, who were never able to get their noses in front.

Mackin curled over a superb point to put Armagh ahead again in the 57th minute after another blistering break by McCoy, though Geraghty got Mayo back on even terms after Walsh had spurned a first chance to equalise.

Thankfully McCambridge drew a foul at the back when outnumbered, Mulligan scooped up possession in her own goalmouth as Mayo again threatened and then Armagh escaped upfield through Druse, Grace Ferguson and Doyle.

McCoy ran at Mayo one last time, turned All Star defender Danielle Caldwell and won a free which the referee made Mackin take from further out and more to the left than she was initially lining it up but her majestic strike, judged to perfection, still went over.

It would have taken the concession of a last-gasp goal to leave Armagh sweating on their historic league final appearance for a further six days but, by keeping Mayo from scoring even a point, the visitors came away with the win in McConville’s milestone match.

ARMAGH: B Mathers; G Ferguson, C McCambridge (capt), R Mulligan; C Towe, L McConville, D Coleman; N Coleman (0-1), C O’Hanlon; E Lavery, A McCoy (1-1), C Doyle; A Mackin (1-5; 3f), N Henderson, K Mallon (0-2; 2f).  Subs used: E Druse for Lavery (40mins), S Quigley for Mallon (40), M Ferguson for D Coleman (52), C O’Hagan for Doyle (60).

MAYO: L Brennan; D Caldwell, N O’Malley, S Lally (capt); K Sullivan, E Murray, J Mortimer; S Cafferky, A Geraghty (0-1), H Reape; F McLaughlin, A Fitzpatrick, M Cannon (0-3; 2f); S Cafferky, L Cafferky (0-1), S Walsh (1-2).  Subs used: C Needham for Mortimer (ht), S Delaney (1-1) for Fitzpatrick (ht), C Durkin for Sullivan (44), E Ronayne for Murray (44), A Staunton for L Cafferky (50).

Referee: Aaron Clogher (Roscommon).


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